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El Borrachito

By Megan Kinneyn | Apr. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2007

El Borrachito

A drunk but persistent client triggers in his lawyer painful memories of lessons learned from his own childhood in the San Joaquin Valley. By Nicolás C. Vaca

By Nicolás C. Vaca
      The telephone rang and the interoffice light came on?Sixta, El Licenciado's secretary, was calling.
      "He's back." Sixta spoke in a hushed tone.
      "Who's back?"
      "You know," Sixta said in a singsong tone.
      "No, I don't."
      "El Borrachito."
      Sixta had dubbed Ruben Sierra Flores "El Borrachito" because after the first time he saw El Licenciado he made frequent, unscheduled visits to the office arriving either slightly drunk or stumbling drunk. Depending on the degree of his inebriation, Sixta would either let him see El Licenciado immediately or make him wait until he regained his sobriety or left the office out of boredom or impatience. No matter how drunk El Borrachito was when he arrived for his spontaneous appointments he was always calm and polite, and so Sixta nicknamed him El Borrachito (The Little Drunkard) out of affection and some pity.
      El Licenciado took in a deep breath. "How bad is he today?"
      "Not real bad."
      "What does that mean?"
      "It means that he can talk to you and you can talk to him and he will probably understand you?but I don't think that he will remember what you told him tomorrow when he wakes up."
      "What does he want?"
      "To talk to you."
      "I don't know. I don't read minds."
      "Didn't you ask him?" El Licenciado was becoming irritated with Sixta. She was playing with him, and he did not like it when she did that.
      "Yes, and he just waived his hands and said that he has to talk to you."
      "Send him in."
      El Licenciado put down the receiver and sat up. In a moment Sixta opened the door to his office and handed El Borrachito's file to El Licenciado. El Borrachito followed her in and rushed forward to sit in the client chair. He did not, however, remain still. He moved around in the chair as if he occupied a vast space, stopping from time to time when he found a position that suited him. El Borrachito was a Mexican Indian. A combination of moisture and oil made his dark skin glisten. A pencil-thin mustache composed of weak, short hairs hung tentatively from his upper lip. His hair?straight, thick, and black?was combed back, held mostly in place by a generous amount of hair cream. When strands fell away onto his face, he brushed them back into place with the quick stroke of his right hand. Small, white teeth showed when he spoke, and when he did not they clenched against each other, refusing to pull apart even when he smiled so that he appeared to be grimacing from pain rather than smiling from pleasure.
      "Señor Licenciado. I just came by to find out about my case. How is it going?" El Borrachito leaned his body against the armrest and peered at El Licenciado. His breath reached El Licenciado across the desk-it smelled of whisky, not the usual beer.
      "Señor Flores, I told you the last time you were here?when was that, two days ago?"
      El Borrachito shook his head vigorously to indicate not only that he did not remember when he was in the office last but also that such a fact was unimportant.
      "Yes, it was just two days ago," said El Licenciado. "I told you then, that we are just waiting. We submitted your application and now we're just waiting for your appointment."
      El Borrachito had come to El Licenciado to apply for legal residency. His case was simple. El Licenciado was confident that the application would be granted. Now he was waiting for an interview date with the immigration service.
      "Yeah," El Borrachito answered in English. He was one of El Licenciado's few clients who spoke both English and Spanish with equal facility. "Now under what category did we apply? You told me there are two."
      "If you recall"-El Licenciado had answered this question before for El Borrachito, but he either forgot the answer or wanted to hear it again-"we talked about applying under section 245(a) because you've been here for so long, but ..."
      "Yeah, yeah, now I remember." El Borrachito flicked his hand past his face, as if he were brushing away a hovering insect, and continued speaking in English: "You know I went to school here. I went to Hamilton Grammar School and I went to Edison High School."
      "Yes, you told me this before." El Licenciado knew that his client was born in Aguacatlan in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, in 1953 but had come to the United States for the first time in 1958. He made various trips back to Mexico, staying for short periods and then returning to the United States. When he was in the United States he attended grammar school and high school. The transcripts that El Licenciado had obtained from the school district revealed that El Borrachito performed poorly. When El Borrachito dropped out after a year of high school, he began working almost immediately as a farm laborer. With the exception of several departures to Mexico, his work record was steady, but like his schoolwork it revealed a precarious existence. It was an existence that he continued even as he prepared to become a legal resident of the United States.
      "Señor Flores," said El Licenciado, attempting to pick up the thread of the conversation, "we decided to file your application under section 210 because you have worked for 90 days in agriculture for three years beginning in 1983. Not only that, but you have three drunk-driving convictions and that means you don't qualify under section 245(a), but you do qualify under section 210."
      "I don't drive anymore," El Borrachito answered as he leaned toward El Licenciado. "They can't arrest me when I drink and walk. So I don't drive anymore."
      "Well, that's good." El Licenciado turned his head away as if to look out the window and pushed his chair away from his desk. He crossed his leg as if to demonstrate to El Borrachito the reason he had moved away from the desk.
      "You know," El Borrachito said, reverting to Spanish, "I went to school here. I can speak English. I can speak it just like you. I can write it and I can read it, just like you."
      "I'm sure you can," El Licenciado answered.
      "Yes," El Borrachito continued in Spanish, "but something happened to me. I don't know what."
      El Licenciado could not see the purpose of this conversation. As in the others that had gone before it, El Borrachito's questions would quickly melt away into a discussion of his life in the United States and his education. El Licenciado had heard all of his stories before, and he was eager to get him out of his office. Still he asked, involuntarily, "What do you mean?"
      "I don't really know." El Borrachito flicked his hand across his face again and dismissed the thought from his mind.
      When El Borrachito left, El Licenciado opened El Borrachito's file. He took out a manila envelope that had "School Records" written across the front, opened it, turned it upside down, and shook it. A collection of yellow and orange cards fell out?El Borrachito's report cards from grammar school. He opened one marked Hamilton Grammar School and began to review it. Suddenly, a flood of memories rushed upon him:
      "Hijo! Levántate!" El Licenciado heard his mother's voice call. It was his first day of school. Vicente and Arturo, El Licenciado's older brothers, were already up. They already knew about school, and they had no enthusiasm for it. They washed their faces with prolonged attention and put on their clothing reluctantly, stubbornly.
      El Licenciado washed his face thoroughly, reaching behind his ears to make certain to get even the most difficult parts. He brushed his teeth with unusual vigor, and then he put on his new school clothes. First, he slid his arms into the red satin cowboy shirt with white piping. It caressed his body and it felt good against his bare skin. He buttoned it carefully, making certain not to crease or wrinkle the shiny surface. Next he put on the Levi's pants that his mother had ironed with great care, forming a thin crease down the front. Once they were on, he ran his new belt through the loops and cinched it around his waist with the chrome buckle that had a bas-relief of a cowboy on a bucking bronco. The final touch was the boots: two-toned cowboy boots that his mother had bought at the Bargain Spot in Stockton. When he was done, he inspected himself in the full-length mirror that rested on the bathroom door. There was no doubting it?he looked spectacular! He envisioned himself at school and knew that when he arrived he would attract an admiring crowd of children who would shove and jostle each other just to get close to this astounding boy. Little girls with bright ribbons in their hair and summer pastel-colored dresses would smile adoringly, and boys would glare at him with envy.
      "Come and eat!" his mother yelled. El Licenciado sipped at a cup of cinnamon tea, picked at the scrambled eggs, and chewed at a tortilla.
      "We're going, Ma." Vicente stood up from the table.
      "Wait. Come here, hijo." El Licenciado stood and walked to his mother. "I'm going to comb your hair."
      For several years El Licenciado's hair had grown in whatever direction and design it desired. Combing his hair usually meant that he would wash it and then rub it vigorously with his hands until it was partially dry. He let the sun and wind do the rest. His mother did not believe this was good enough for school. She retrieved a brick of lard from the refrigerator, pinched off a substantial amount, and rubbed it vigorously between her hands until it melted into a shiny ointment that she applied to his hair. The lard tamed El Licenciado's unruly hair and gave it a pleasing sheen. She combed the hair forward, parted it down the middle, and then combed each section to the side. El Licenciado smiled warmly at her.
      "Ma ..." Vicente was about to protest the hairstyle.
      "What!" El Licenciado's mother turned and gave him a hard look.
      "His hair! It looks bad!" Vicente whined.
      "Yeah, Ma. It does," Arturo echoed.
      "What's wrong with it?" El Licenciado's mother said to Arturo.
      "It's old-looking. The other kids are going to laugh at him. Nobody combs their hair that way anymore."
      "It's not important what the other children think. Benito Juárez, the greatest president Mexico ever had, combed his hair this way. What's the shame in looking like him?"
      El Licenciado's mother bent down and wiped off the lard that had dripped onto El Licenciado's forehead. Vicente and Arturo, perhaps wanting to distance themselves from El Licenciado's presidential look, were already out the door when El Licenciado's mother hugged him tightly and kissed him.
      "It's your first day of school, hijo," El Licenciado's mother said. She held his face between her hands and drew it close to her. "Pay attention and learn, and everything will go well." She kissed him again and stood up.
      El Licenciado ran out of the door and caught up with his brothers as they turned the corner opposite the Baptist church that sat across the alley from their house, pulled up his pants, and fell two steps behind them.
      The school was only four blocks from their house, and they were in colorful company, with children streaming out of the houses and joining the parade in their new school clothes. The little girls and boys looked just like El Licenciado had imagined. He was even more certain that his dream of glory would take flight?that is, until he heard the familiar jabber of English. El Licenciado tensed and came abreast of Vicente and Arturo. Only the knowledge he would be rejected prevented him from grasping one of their hands for comfort and solace. The dream was beginning to evaporate, and the dark image of a nightmare was emerging as he realized for the first time that in school everyone spoke English. Yes! English. English, not Spanish! Why didn't he think of it before?how could he have been so foolish, so blind and ignorant! Vicente and Arturo ignored him. As the brothers neared the corner of the road where the school stood, the din of children grew louder, and from all sides they streamed into the brick buildings?noisy, foraging ants who instinctively knew where they were headed. Vicente and Arturo halted in one of the long corridors to examine a piece of paper on the wall. Children whizzed by, yelling loudly and laughing at their own words. Arturo grabbed El Licenciado's shoulder and held him for a moment.
      "You take him, Vicente." Vicente nodded in agreement and told El Licenciado to follow him. As they walked along, children would stop, stare at them, hit each other, giggle, and then run away. El Licenciado walked with Vicente into a classroom at the tail end of a group of jostling children, all bigger than El Licenciado. The room hummed loudly with their talking, laughing, and giggling. Vicente walked to the front of the classroom and spoke briefly to the teacher, who listened with a bowed head as she shuffled a large blue book and papers around her large desk and then nodded her head. The teacher was an old woman, older than his mother, El Licenciado concluded. Tight curls of white hair framed her round face and made her head appear too small for her imposing shoulders. Her blue eyes were enlarged by thick lenses, set in gold-colored wire frames. The surface of her powdery white skin was lined with thin blue veins. A blue voile dress with a large butterfly brooch draped her corpulent body. Her feet were encased in black, ankle-high shoes laced so tightly that small bulbs of flesh pushed out over the edges.
      A bell rang. The teacher spoke to Vicente without looking at him. El Licenciado and Vicente wove their way through the giggling children to a desk in a corner at the back of the room, near one of the large windows, where they joined a Gypsy boy with an exaggerated nose and a very small Filipino boy with a crew cut that matched his neat and tidy clothes. All around the room was a collection of finger paintings: houses, stick figures of men and women and children, and an occasional landscape in rich greens and deep blues. In the corner directly diagonal from El Licenciado stood the American flag and the California state flag. Two large blackboards covered the entire front of the room, and above them the alphabet was listed in large block letters. Vicente left for his own classroom.
      The Gypsy boy wore a dirty, checkered shirt buttoned to the very top and baggy gray pants stained with grease and held up by a pair of frayed suspenders. His shoes were old and had no laces; the heels were worn down to their soles. His right sock had a hole at the heel, and so he kept his right foot crossed over his left instep in the hope that no one would notice. His long nose rested above thin lips and a jutting chin. His hair was cut close, revealing a maze of scars all around his head. He sat almost motionless, looking straight ahead, with his hands folded and directly in front of him on the table. From time to time some of the children would turn to stare and giggle at the three of them. El Licenciado felt hot and unhappy, and he desperately wanted to go home.
      The teacher spoke to the class, and the commotion died down completely. She took her blue book, spoke some more, and wrote in the book. She then spoke again, and the students searched in their desks and began to pull out paper and pencils. As they rustled in their desks the teacher wound her way to the back of the room. She looked at the three boys with her magnified blue eyes, then spoke to the Gypsy boy. She might as well have spoken to a tree. He continued to look straight ahead. She spoke to him again. He fidgeted, and a look of anxiety began to crowd his face. It was clear that he had been on the verge of bolting from the classroom since the moment that El Licenciado had seen him, but he knew that he would be brought back to face this woman again, so he remained and grew increasingly uneasy. A look of anger crept over the teacher's face, tightening her jowls and further enlarging her eyes. She grabbed the Gypsy boy by the shoulder and shook him violently as she spoke angry words over him. The Gypsy boy did not alter his position or his stare, but confusion clouded his eyes and he began to cry quietly, pushing out tears that streaked his unwashed face. The teacher jolted back and let out a surprised, "Oh!" A thin stream of yellow urine was dripping from the Gypsy boy's seat onto the tiled floor, creating a foaming circle. The boy's quiet crying became louder, and before the teacher could say or do anything more he ran out of the room.
      The teacher turned and spoke to El Licenciado. As she spoke, he became aware of his fascination with how the foreign words tumbled so easily from her lips and the idea that this woman could believe that he understood what she was saying. She stopped. El Licenciado blinked several times and squirmed in his seat. She spoke once more. El Licenciado was bewildered and confused, and he desperately wanted her to know that he did not understand her. She spoke again, and as the stream of words gained in volume El Licenciado turned his head and looked out the window. At this gesture, the children exploded in laughter. The teacher stamped her right foot and clapped her hands loudly to recapture his attention and quiet the other children. El Licenciado turned and faced her, and once again she spoke. El Licenciado was beyond confusion and anxiety; it was obvious he could do nothing to convince her that he did not understand her. The matter had passed beyond his hands, and so he sat still, his eyes looking beyond her face to a distant vision of his mother and his house. The teacher's face was now contorted in anger: fleshy bulbs on each cheek went flush, and the paper-thin skin covering her lips began to crack and peel from the pressure of restraint. She spoke to El Licenciado again.
      Suddenly she stopped, and then a loud crack filled the air. From nowhere, the teacher had produced a long wooden ruler that she swung with a quick motion, striking El Licenciado at the base of his head. El Licenciado's flesh went hot, and he imagined it had turned a brilliant red-but he neither cried nor felt any desire to do so. He was stunned by an action that he felt had no reason and could only have been inspired by madness particular to old teachers. She could have struck him again and again with all the force of her aged body and it would have had no effect on him. He had moved beyond her world into one of disbelief, and nothing she could do would bring him back. El Licenciado blinked at her. She turned and walked away, her hands quivering from frustration and anger.
      From that moment on, El Licenciado was tormented by ignorance and confusion and punished for his lack of English with the ruler, an open palm to the back of the head, or a painfully twisted ear. In that first year he carried home countless notes from the teacher. The notes mostly asked that he be kept home until he learned English. The notes were read to El Licenciado's mother by Vicente, and though she understood each request perfectly, every day she would slick El Licenciado's hair back, kiss him gently, ask him to pay attention in class, and send him off to school.
      In time El Licenciado learned English, the alphabet, and how to count to 100. And he learned much more. He learned that he would never, as long as he lived, be as ignorant and powerless as he was on that first day of school. He set his mind to this, and the memory of that first day impelled him to excel and achieve. This he had done.
      El Licenciado folded the old report card and put it back in the manila envelope.
      A week later to the day, El Borrachito once again appeared at El Licenciado's office. Just as before, he squirmed on the client chair and sent waves of alcohol-laced breath across El Licenciado's desk.
      "Do you like asparagus?" El Borrachito asked in English.
      "Yes. Yes, I do," El Licenciado answered as he stood and pressed his back against the bay window.
      "I'll bring you some. I'm working in the islands. The new crop is just coming in. I'll bring you a sack next time I come by."
      El Licenciado knew what El Borrachito meant by the "islands" when he spoke about bringing asparagus. A casual visitor to the delta region of the San Joaquin Valley would not recognize as islands the vast agricultural fields where the asparagus grew. But islands they were, each one separated from the others by numerous arteries composed of rivers, channels, and sloughs that wound their way through the fertile black soil. This was the soil that made the islands ideal for growing asparagus, potatoes, and sunflowers. The asparagus was the first crop harvested each year in the San Joaquin Valley, and its harvesting announced the end of winter and the onset of spring. The island where El Borrachito worked?and where El Licenciado himself had worked as a young man during the summer months when school did not demand his presence-was dotted with clusters of small, wooden houses and Quonset huts where workers lived during the time of harvest. They stayed in these houses until the harvesting was done, and then they moved on to pick the next crop. After the asparagus and other crops had been plucked off the black surface of these fields, the winds would arrive from the west and the black dust would rise into the air to form a cloud of dirt that hung in the sky like a suspended drape, raining fine grains of black dust onto everything.
      "You don't have to bring me asparagus," said El Licenciado, sitting back down.
      "I know, but I want to." El Borrachito squinted his small eyes closed.
      "Fine, but don't bring too many. They'll just go bad."
      "I've got to go now." El Borrachito ended the conversation by rising quickly to his feet.
      When he was gone, El Licenciado called Sixta into his office. "What's going on with him?" El Licenciado asked her.
      "He likes you," Sixta said.
      "Other clients like me too, but they don't come by to visit me almost every day."
      "He has a reason," Sixta smiled.
      "What reason?"
      "He wants you to like him."
      "I don't know. But I know he wants you to like him."
      El Licenciado did not want to pursue this conversation anymore. He didn't understand what El Borrachito wanted, and Sixta's comments unsettled him.
      In time El Borrachito's interview date arrived. El Licenciado wrote to El Borrachito and told him to meet him at the immigration office at the time and date of the interview. On the day of the interview, El Licenciado arrived early. El Borrachito had been waiting for him for an hour, and thankfully El Licenciado could detect no alcohol on his breath. His interview was quick and simple, and at the end he was given his employment card. Outside of the immigration office, El Borrachito thanked El Licenciado and then announced he was going to Mexico for a while.
      El Licenciado never saw El Borrachito again. From time to time he would think about him and what Sixta had said about El Borrachito wanting El Licenciado to like him. Perhaps El Borrachito saw in El Licenciado what he might have been. And if he could not be like El Licenciado, then at least he wanted El Licenciado's respect. For El Borrachito that would be enough. El Licenciado regretted not realizing this before. He found himself wanting El Borrachito to appear once again at his office, wanting to talk with him, however briefly, and to say, finally, "You know, Señor Flores, you and I have a lot in common, don't we?" He wanted to tell this man that his achievements did mean something, that by overcoming the obstacles life had placed in his path he had succeeded in his own way.
      Nicolás C. Vaca ( is a contributing writer for California Lawyer and a commercial litigator in Walnut Creek.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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